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From the lab to the gallery floor: museum volunteers make a difference

Susan Goods © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Dennis Bason scanning slides. 

This week the country is honouring the selfless efforts of millions of Canadians as part of its 13th annual National Volunteer Week.

Whether on the front lines or behind the scenes, people have been participating in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s volunteer program for nearly 40 years.

In 2015-2016 alone, volunteers amassed over 13,000 hours researching and analyzing specimens, digitizing collections, interpreting science for visitors, and much more.

One volunteer at the museum’s research and collections building in Aylmer, Quebec is recent retiree Joe Holmes. He works roughly 10 hours per week examining tiny microscopic organisms called diatoms. He feels the project is personally rewarding.

“When I first arrived here I enjoyed the repetitive work,” explains Holmes. “I had some health issues around the time I retired, so the work was very therapeutic.”

Holmes is so dedicated that he used his own vacation time on trips to Vancouver and Ireland to collect research samples. Using his past experience as a computer science writer, he has contributed several blog posts about his quest for diatoms to the museum’s website.

Dennis Bason, another retiree, has been volunteering at the NHB for nearly 10 years. He contributes to the meticulous process of digitizing the museum’s vast image collections. His primary focus is scanning sketches, drawings, and photographs, thereby making them available to the public online.

Thanks to Bason’s efforts, scientists can use the newly digitized files in their own work. For example, paleobiologist Dr. Jordan Mallon used some photographs as a reference before doing his own research.

“He was able to relocate some of the old fossil dig sites on the basis of some of the photographs that I had scanned,” says Bason, “That was quite rewarding for me.”

A recent task for Bason was scanning the Sternberg images, which chronicle the  family’s time digging up dinosaurs in Alberta’s Badlands.

“They produced literally hundreds of glass plate images, which documented their life around the campsites, how they transported materials and how they cast the fossils,” says Bason.

University students are also active volunteers at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Rachel Hardick, an undergrad at Carleton, has been sharing her passion for nature at the museum’s public site in Ottawa for over a year.

Among other tasks, Hardick explains to visitors how paleontologists dig up dinosaur bones, at the Saturday afternoon fossil prep station. She believes she has become a more engaging person as a result.

“It’s made me more social than I used to be,” says Hardick. “It’s definitely a lot easier to talk to the public or work with any large crowds. I’m a lot more comfortable.”

The Canadian Museum of Nature encourages the public to get involved in its diverse range of programming. Each volunteer brings something unique to the table, ensuring that the museum reflects the diversity of the community it serves.

For more information about summer opportunities in the museum’s volunteer program, contact coordinator Katja Rodriguez at 613-566-4261 or krodriguez@mus-nature.ca.